Two years after taking his aides’ advice to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists, Donald Trump as he campaigns to regain the presidency is now openly embracing their violent assault on police officers in their efforts to carry out his attempted coup.
“It was a beautiful day ... Jan. 6, it was the largest crowd I have ever spoken to,” Trump said at a New Hampshire “town hall” hosted by CNN Wednesday before complaining that so many of them are facing felony charges or have already been convicted for their crimes. “What they’ve done to these people, they’ve persecuted these people.”
Those words align with previous statements from recent months where he has recast those charged and even convicted of assaulting police officers as “patriotic” heroes. He has even collaborated with more than a dozen of them to produce a recording of their rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — punctuated by Trump reading the Pledge of Allegiance — which he then played at the start of a recent rally as he stood with his hand on his heart.
More than 140 officers were injured that day defending the Capitol from Trump followers who had come to block the congressional ceremony certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s election win.
Among those injured and nearly killed was Michael Fanone, a former Washington, D.C., officer.
“We need to stop treating him as if he is a participant in our democratic republic and start treating him as the enemy of it,” he said. “That’s how you ‘debate’ Trump. You go to war with him.”
As footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is displayed in the background, former President Donald Trump stands while a song, "Justice for All," is played during a campaign rally on March 25 in Waco, Texas.
Trump’s effort to revise history worries critics who see him now behaving like a classic authoritarian.
“Until this latest round of statements, I was reluctant to use the word ‘fascism’ to describe Trump,” said Norm Eisen, an ethics lawyer in the Barack Obama White House who then worked with the House when it impeached Trump for his attempt to extort Ukraine in 2019. “There can no longer be any doubt about the nature of the movement he seeks to build and lead ... We’re moving into late-stage evolution of Trump’s autocracy.”
“This is exactly the kind of authoritarian behavior we’ve come to dread and expect from him,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican consultant who broke with the party after Trump won the 2016 presidential nomination. “He’s telling America: He will pardon hundreds of violent terrorists who attempted to overthrow the government. In any moral universe, it would disqualify him completely. Now, it probably raised his standing with MAGA voters.”
George Conway, a prominent lawyer who supported Trump’s election but quickly turned against him because of Trump’s behavior upon taking office, said the effort to paint a coup attempt as a patriotic event has chilling historical echoes. “It reminds me of how, after Hitler came to power, he constructed a memorial near the beer hall in Munich and made the anniversary of the putsch an annual national celebration,” Conway said, referring to the 1923 failed coup attempt that sent the eventual dictator to prison for nine months.
Trump’s staff did not respond to HuffPost’s queries about his new glorification of political violence.
It is, however, in stark contrast to the statement he issued on Jan. 7, 2021, the day after the failed coup attempt. Then, he put out a video at the urging of White House lawyers and aides saying he was “outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem” and that: “If you broke the law, you will pay” — although the House Jan. 6 committee later released evidence that Trump watered down the condemnation that had been prepared for him.
One former Trump campaign official said the 180-degree flip is typical. Trump had the ability to pardon all of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists prior to noon on Jan. 20, 2021, when he left office, and chose not to — even though he is now claiming he will pardon them if returned to the White House.
“Just another example of how Trump’s promises now are empty words,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “When he had the chance to do the things he’s promising now, he didn’t do them, or did the complete opposite.”
Trump did, at times Wednesday night, appear to appreciate the risks in justifying the violence perpetrated on his behalf. Asked about issuing pardons to all those facing charges or already convicted, Trump said he was “inclined” to do so except for “a couple of them, probably,” who “got out of control.”
During a discussion of his actions on Jan. 6 itself, when Trump was pressed on why it took him three hours of watching the violence on television before he finally told his mob to leave the building, he lied and claimed he had posted a video telling them to do that shortly after 2 p.m.
In fact, that video was not posted to Twitter until 4:17 p.m. — two and a half hours after some of his followers began breaking through police barriers into the building, and nearly two hours after Trump sent the mob into a frenzy by tweeting that his own vice president, Mike Pence, “didn’t have the courage” to do as Trump had demanded.
That post enraged his people, who swarmed into the Capitol with the goal of hunting down his vice president. Many roamed the halls chanting: “Hang Mike Pence!”
David Jolly, a former GOP congressman from Florida, said he sees statements about Jan. 6 both then and now as “self-preservation.”
“The day after the coup he was facing possible removal from office. Even if it would have been meaningless, it would have been an historic injury for him,” Jolly said. “Now removed from the days of the insurrection, he is retelling history with a narrative that further builds the fictional lens through which he hopes the world will see him.”
Eisen said that whatever his motivations, Trump now represents the biggest internal threat to American democracy since at least Sen. Joe McCarthy’s time and possibly the Civil War. “There can no longer be any doubt about the nature of the movement he seeks to build and lead,” he said, adding that it was incumbent first on his Republican rivals to stand up to him. “Trump will also have to stand judgment before all the American people and also the courts. The Republican primary electorate will not be the last stop should they fail us.”
Trump is under criminal investigation by prosecutors in Georgia as well as the Department of Justice for his actions leading up to and on Jan. 6. The DOJ is separately investigating his refusal to turn over top-secret documents he had at his South Florida country club in defiance of a subpoena.